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Outstanding Female Leader in Ophthalmology | May/June '16

Outstanding Female Leader in Ophthalmology: Helen K. Wu, MD

Helen K. Wu, MD

Helen K. Wu, MD

Dr. Wu is the Director of Refractive Surgery at the New England Eye Center and an Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology, Tufts University School of Medicine, in Boston, Massachusetts.

Please share with us your background.

I grew up in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, a beautiful town outside of Cleveland. I graduated from the University of Michigan and then attended the Ohio State University College of Medicine. I returned to Ann Arbor after medical school to complete my internship and residency training at the Kellogg Eye Center at the University of Michigan. I then moved to Boston for fellowships at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in uveitis and ocular inflammation and cornea and external disease.

After my fellowship training, I began working at the New England Eye Center at the Tufts University School of Medicine and have been there ever since. I married my husband, a specialist in pulmonary and critical care medicine, with whom I had trained in Ann Arbor, shortly after beginning my job. We have two wonderful children. I have an academic practice in refractive and cataract surgery, as well as in corneal disease and uveitis, at the New England Eye Center.

What is the focus of your current research?

I have been performing cataract and refractive surgery for my entire career, and I am interested currently in improving outcomes in post-refractive surgery patients undergoing cataract surgery with intraoperative wavefront aberrrometry. I am also interested in the role of the ocular surface in refractive, cataract, and corneal surgery patients and am looking forward to investigating the efficacy and mechanism of action of intense pulsed light, or IPL, therapy in dry eye patients.

What has your experience been collaborating with industry?

I have participated in multiple clinical trials involving laser vision correction since the early days of refractive surgery as well as in clinical trials with pharmaceutical companies. Early in my career, I was privileged to be a founding member of the LASIK Institute, an organization established in the 1990s that brought together refractive surgeons as well as industry leaders and served as a think tank of sorts in the early days of refractive surgery. This experience was particularly valuable to me, as I was able to work together with people who all shared the same commitment to innovation and excellent patient care.

Since then, I have also served as a medical monitor in clinical studies with industry, I have been on speakers’ bureaus, and I have served as a consultant and participated on advisory boards and panels. All of my activities with industry have been positive and further my belief that a strong relationship between medical professionals and industry, providing discussion and guidance in both directions, will ultimately benefit patients the most.

In your opinion, how is the role of women in ophthalmology evolving?

Nearly half of medical school graduates are now women. The number of women in surgical specialties, including ophthalmology, has increased, although at a slower pace than in fields such as primary care medicine, pediatrics, and obstetrics and gynecology. This so-called feminization of medicine has produced a lot of discussion and study. Some research has suggested that women in medicine may give more effective care, as women tend to utilize a team-based approach and listen more carefully. They communicate better and involve patients in their own care more. This can lead to better patient outcomes and less litigation. More women are also assuming teaching and leadership roles, although the numbers are still small. Further, as we see more young women entering our field, this has led to more options for child care in the workplace and more flexible work options.

What, if any, hurdles do you feel women in health care still face?

There are still concerns that the working practices of female physicians may lead to a workplace shortage. While part-time positions can be helpful to meet the challenges of caring for a family, they are not necessarily favorably viewed by our colleagues or by patients. Compensation for these positions can be low, and it is easy for work demands to carry over into home life. There is still a gender gap in pay and in leadership positions, although that is slowly changing. Mentors are not as easy to find for women in health care, given the relative paucity of women in leadership roles. The challenges of work-life balance are perhaps the most difficult, and women still often shoulder the bulk of child-rearing responsibilities. This may result in a slower career trajectory for many women.

What advice can you offer to young female ophthalmologists who are still in training or just beginning their careers?

First, stay committed to education and find a way to make every experience a learning experience. Every patient, every surgery, every article, and every lecture are all opportunities to learn something new. Stay curious and ask questions. There is always an opportunity to improve. Keep challenging yourself—learn a new technique, design a new instrument. Our field is constantly changing; we need to change with it.

Second, work hard, be confident in your abilities, and be involved. Give a lecture to primary care colleagues, join your investigational review board, give a talk at a neighborhood health fair, or write a column for your local paper. Don’t be afraid to reach out, join a society, or start something new.

Third, define your goals and write them down. Align your activities with your goals. Periodically assess where you are and whether you are on track to meet your goals. If not, change what you are doing. Find a mentor or an executive coach who can help you stay on track.

Fourth, make time for your family and the people you love. Carve out time to commit to your relationships and put it in your calendar. Make sure those close to you know that they are important. They are your anchors in your life. Take care of them, because at the end of the day, they will be the ones who will take care of you.

Finally, make time for yourself. Your health is also a commitment. Take care of your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs. Take a history class. Go for a run. Travel for fun, and climb that mountain you have always wanted to climb. Be part of a book club or a church group. Join friends for dinner. Take time every day to reflect. It is often in these quiet moments that ideas take shape and the world becomes clearer.

Can you propose a unique or creative idea that may help women in ophthalmic practices?

Whether women are in academics or in private practice, it is helpful to have mentors who are willing to take the time to share their experiences and stories. These mentors may come in the form of professional colleagues, teachers, or even community or religious leaders, and they may be women or men. More mentorship programs are beginning to form through women’s organizations such as Ophthalmic Women Leaders (OWL). Often, women in medicine who want to advance in their field also seek training in the form of seminars and coaching. What I would personally like to see is more easily accessible executive coaching for women. It would be tremendous to have more of these opportunities through our medical societies and online.